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“What You Have Heard Is True”—Carolyn Forché unveils a brutal truth

December 5, 2021

In terms of structure, content, lyricism, and ultimate power to open a reader’s eyes to the world as it is, I think this book has no equal. The best prose has a lot of poetry in it, and “What You Have Heard Is True” is both lyrical and powerful in unexpected ways.  Although Carolyn Forché ‘s experiences at the start of the long El Salvador civil war (1979-1992) took place decades ago, we can be assured that similar human rights abuses are still going on in nations throughout the world.

This book is not a history of that war, nor is it a “political” work with a specific agenda.  Rather it is a clear-eyed view of the worst things that people do against each other, under the blinding influences of greed and power.  Her book or poetry “The Country Between Us,” written during that era, exposes those influences in that moment. The current book, her memoir of those years, takes you back to that time, reliving it minute by minute, very slowly opening the reader’s eyes as her own eyes are opening as well, learning to see.  The man who led her through all this, Leonel Gomez Vides, taught her to see, and left up to her how best to express what it was she saw.  “’Are you going to write poetry about yourself for the rest of your life?’” he asks her at the beginning of the book, before she even knows him, before she goes to El Salvador.  “’Try to see,’ Leonel had said.  It was what he was asking me to do.  Try to see.  Look at the world, he’d say, not at the mirror.”

We share her experiences in that impoverished country, wondering (like she does) where exactly is he taking her, all this coming and going throughout the countryside.  Who are all these people she meets—colonels and campesinos—in all these barrios and villages and camps and colonias?  Why is she even there?  Leonel is not really forthcoming; he wants her to learn to see, to think for herself.  We—and she—don’t really know for sure, until the middle of the book.  She had been covertly been taken into a prison to witness the solitary confinement there, and after that a clandestine and forbidden meeting with a group of Salvadoran poets, it all comes into focus.  “That night I knew that something had changed for me. . . . I never saw the young poets again.  I don’t know what happened to them, if they survived or are among the dead. . .  But the woman who went into the prison in Ahuachapán left herself behind in a barrio called La Fosa, the grave.”

This is a book that for me takes a long time to read, and not without a pencil nearby to mark out the lines that mean the most, on the many dogeared pages. 

And having read thus far, I am compelled to ask myself “What is my role in all this?”  Did I have one in 1979?  Do I have one today?  Can I leave it to my government to stand guard against human rights abuses in other nations around the world? 

Probably not.  As Leonel reminds Forché, “I have seldom seen the Americans serious about human rights unless it is politically convenient for them.”

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